To Change Perceptions We Need Less Talking and More Transformation

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If there’s one conversation that returns time and again to haunt social housing (and indeed much of the public sector) it’s this: people don’t seem to have a great perception of us.

It’s not so much cyclical news story as eternal death wail. A mourning lament for a lost lover. Except a lover who never really cared about us in the first place.

The latest in a long series of wake up calls (I make it at least Season 9, Episode 10) is the survey completed by the National Housing Federation ahead of the launch of the Owning our Future strategy. The NHF has completed wide ranging interviews of the public and politicians as well as think tanks.

The results are a mixed bag:

Only one in ten people said they had a good understanding of what housing associations do. The sector has no instinctive political allies. However most people say housing should be a top priority for the country — and feel that Housing Associations play a critical role in delivery.

Accordingly, the NHF have come up with three steps that we should take to own our future

  • Telling a compelling shared story — about what unites us and also how we differ from each other
  • Targeting key politicians and creating tailored, consistent messages to turn them into advocates.
  • Backing up these stories and relationships with substance

You’d have to be a real cynic to disagree with any of this.

So why do I have the nagging feeling that this won’t be the last of our attempts to reposition our sector?

It comes down to this.

To really transform perceptions of housing associations, you need to transform.

You need to do something radically different to change opinions. If you deliver impact rather than talk about impact — people mentally reposition you.

Perhaps we need to take lessons here from the popular sectors?

Despite concerns about privacy and security, the technology sector was again named by Edelman as the most trusted sector — a position it has maintained for over 5 years.

Why? It’s arguably the sector that is best at pre-anticipating consumer need — using innovation to solve our problems. In a world that’s all about connecting people, technology is creating a halo effect for the industry itself.

At the other end of the scale the UK energy sector is one of the least trusted in the world. It’s a sector with friends in high places, but that hasn’t prevented nearly 50% of the public from saying they dislike it for failing to balance profits with affordable tariffs.

In reality you don’t have to be part of a popular sector to be popular yourself. RBS were described as “the least trusted company in the least trusted sector” at the same time that First Direct were achieving record levels of customer satisfaction — defying the trend in banking. Again — the reason for this is the extreme customer centricity and invention of First Direct themselves.

The point I’m attempting to make is that if the public think you are solving their problems and anticipating their needs — you don’t need to worry about reputation. They tell everyone about it. You simply can’t stop them.

The problem for social housing is that its greatest advocates are those who draw wages from it — rather than the public.

The sectors that the public and politicians value are not those best at storytelling — but the one’s best at demonstrating change and impact.

Therefore it’s right that the NHF acknowledge the need to evidence the impact of what we do. Every housing association must demonstrate how we solve problems for people, how we realise savings, how we make the world a better place.

However the once a year annual review or impact assessment won’t cut it anymore. We need to share our performance in real time, our successes and failures, our income and our costs.

To rebuild trust we need to default to a radical transparency that many will be uncomfortable with.

You could argue that some I’ve mentioned do not operate like that at all — and you’d be correct. The likes of Facebook and Amazon can afford to have less than transparent tax arrangements simply because of the astonishing amounts of support they have built up in their user base. They are starting to respond to public and political pressure because they know that trust can be lost a lot more quickly than it can be gained.

The foundations of trust are reliability, benevolence and integrity — not dissimilar to the original values of social housing.

Repositioning a sector takes a demonstration of values though — not a restatement of them.

In that sense — I’m fully behind the NHF campaign.

We do need to reconnect with communities — only not to promote our message, but to hear theirs.

This post originally appeared at www.insidehousing.co.uk

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